SUVA, Fiji (Reuters) - Cyclone Ami tore through parts of Fiji on Tuesday, gaining strength after it destroyed homes and unleashed floods across northern islands, possibly killing two children who sheltered with villagers in a church.
The storm whipped up mountainous seas, cut communications and left Labasa, a tourist hub on the main northern island of Vanua Levu, under four feet (1.2 metres) of water.
Weather officials said the storm was heading southeast across far-flung islands on the outer rim of the Pacific kingdom of Tonga after battering Vanua Levu and surrounding islands with 185 kph (115 mph) winds.
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase told reporters it was feared two children had been trapped under a shattered church building.
Radio station Viti FM said almost all the 60 or so people from the northern island village of Druadrua who had sought refuge in the church escaped before its walls collapsed.
Fiji's north is studded with idyllic atolls packed with tourist resorts. There were no immediate reports of any resorts suffering damage but tourists were told to contact their hotels for advice.
All communications with Vanua Levu, where a quarter of Fiji's 800,000 people live, and surrounding atolls, were cut at about 5 a.m. (1700 GMT Monday).
Emergency officials managed to restore some communications with Labasa and the other main island town of Savusavu later on Tuesday but efforts were being hampered by extensive flooding.
"Labasa town is under four feet of water after water burst the banks of the Labasa river," a Fiji Electricity Authority spokesman told Reuters by radio telephone from Vanua Levu.
"There is extensive damage in both...towns but the complete picture is not yet known," he said.
Police earlier said Savusavu on Vanua Levu's south coast suffered extensive damage and flooding while around 500 villagers on the island of Nayau in the Northern Lau Group to the southeast fled to shelter in hillside caves from a massive storm surge.
Fiji's meteorology service reported at 3:06 p.m. (0306 GMT) that Ami had increased in strength and was packing average winds of 150 kph (93 mph), with gusts of up to 200 kph (124 mph), as it moved through the scattered Lau group of islands.
Its centre at that time was about 100 km (62 miles) south of the southern Lau island of Kabara and was moving south at a brisk 40 kph (25 mph).
Qarase called his cabinet into a long meeting on Tuesday to determine whether to to declare a state of emergency for the northern islands.
Dozens of evacuation centres were opened across Vanua Levu on Monday and people were advised to leave their homes if water levels around the sugar and tourism hub of Labasa began to rise.
A staff member at the exclusive Wakaya Island Resort favoured by Hollywood stars such as Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, said the hotel was undamaged. He said celebrities were staying there but declined to give details.
New Zealand sent an airforce surveillance plane on Tuesday to assess damage. The Orion aircraft was scheduled to arrive in Fiji the same day and, carrying aid experts from New Zealand, Australia and Fiji, would begin a reconnaissance flight at first light on Wednesday, the New Zealand government said.
There were reports that two boats went missing trying to reach shelter in Vanua Levu. One was a fishing boat and the other a passenger boat but no other details were available.
The cyclone is the second to hit the South Pacific in as many weeks. Thousands of inhabitants of a remote part of the Solomon Islands chain northwest of Fiji survived powerful Cyclone Zoe, which hammered the area with 300 kph (190 mph) winds.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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